June 26, 2023
JAKARTA – A significant proportion of the Australian public places more trust in countries with which Canberra shares China-focused defense pacts than in Indonesia, a Lowy Institute survey has found ahead of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s trip to Canberra.
Indonesia has consistently scored lower than regional peers such as India, Japan, Timor-Leste and the Philippines on the Lowy Institute’s feelings thermometer, which gauges Australians’ favorability and warmth toward nations and international institutions.
Jakarta and Canberra have seen highs and lows in their 74 years of official diplomatic relations, fueled by policy and priority changes in both countries under different administrations.
More recently, Australia’s increased cooperation with its Western allies as it grapples with China’s unprecedented assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific has tested its relationship with non-aligned Indonesia. Jakarta has objected to Canberra’s planned procurement of five nuclear-powered submarines over the next three decades through the AUKUS defense pact, consisting of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
After nearly two years of expressing concern, however, Jokowi signaled a softening stance toward Australia’s AUKUS and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) defense pacts in a May interview with The Straits Times.
The Quad groups Australia, India, Japan and the US as they seek to contain China’s territorial aggressiveness in the region.
The latest Lowy poll, which surveyed 2,077 Australian adults, found that while most respondents supported Canberra’s security policies, many shared Jakarta’s regional security concerns.
“Two thirds still favor Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS partnership, although many think the price is too steep or have differing views on how the submarines will impact regional stability,” the study said.
But fears over China outweighed these shared interests with Jakarta, the study suggested, with respondents signaling a preference for the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and India, all of which have strong military ties with the US.
While 61 percent of respondents agreed that Beijing would play a more important and powerful global role in the next ten years, 59 percent felt its foreign policies presented a “critical threat [to] Australia’s vital interests”.
Asked which Asian country could be considered Australia’s “best friend”, 44 percent of the respondents answered Japan, while India and Singapore took the next-highest spots at 16 and 15 percent, respectively. Only 12 percent of respondents pointed to Indonesia, a slight drop from last year’s 15 percent.
Following a similar pattern, most respondents said they placed higher confidence in Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi than in President Jokowi.
Allowing for nuance
Indonesia and Australia have long had a complicated relationship, but within the current context, experts suggested, it was clear that Jakarta’s insistence on remaining non-aligned had caused Australians some discomfort.
“Indonesia under Jokowi’s administration is perceived to be rather soft and permissive toward China, especially having received a lot of investment from Beijing. I’m not surprised that the poll said what it said,” Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an international relations expert at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) told The Jakarta Post on Friday.
Australia’s response to the perceived threat of China, including its participation in AUKUS and the Quad, enjoyed bipartisan consensus in Canberra, Dewi said, contributing to a sense of uneasiness toward neighbors unwilling to declare their standing.
But Jokowi’s softening stance toward Australia’s security pacts has signaled that there may be more nuance to Indonesia’s professed doctrine of free and active neutrality.
“Of course, formally, we would reject AUKUS. But I really do think that, practically speaking, Indonesia needs AUKUS to contain any Chinese threats. I’m seeing that if Jokowi were to talk to [Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese] about AUKUS next month, it would see informal collaboration take place,” said Dafri Agussalim, executive director of the ASEAN studies center at Gadjah Mada University (UGM).
Jokowi is scheduled to visit Canberra for the first time in three years in early July, Australian media has reported. While his agenda remains unclear, Jokowi is expected to discuss AUKUS with Albanese, as tensions between Washington and Beijing remain strained.